Planned skyscrapers are too high
Curtis M. Wong - 03 September 2008
In the latest hit to the long-troubled City Project in Prague 4, the UNESCO Committee for World Heritage plans to suggest that the height of two of the development’s high-rise buildings be scaled down from the original designs.
The recommendations were discussed in July at a UNESCO convention in Quebec, an outline of which was recently published on the committee’s Web site. According to the summary, UNESCO recommends that the two buildings, which are currently designed to be 80 and 104 meters high, be built no higher than 60 to 70 meters, respectively. UNESCO authorities say they are preparing an official document outlining their suggestions for the City Project skyscrapers, which will be delivered to the Culture Ministry for review.
The targeted buildings are part of an estimated 1.4 billion euro ($2.1 billion/34.4 billion Kč) redevelopment plan for the Pankrác section of Prague 4, which has been hyped by developers as a “city within a city” and includes administrative, retail and luxury residential components. Two previously existing Pankrác high-rises, City Tower and City Empiria, were also renovated as part of the project.
Officials from ECM Real Estate Development Group, which helms the development, say one of the buildings is planned as a hotel, while the other, to be called City Epoque, will be divided into private luxury apartments, many of which have already been sold.
In development since 2001, the City Project has long been opposed by local civic organizations who feel its modern appearance will detract from the city’s historical character, and UNESCO, which previously warned City Hall officials that by permitting the skyscrapers’ construction, Prague could risk being deleted from the world heritage list.
“We aren’t against the construction of modern high-rise buildings in Prague, as long as they don’t visually impact the historic city center,” said Martin Skalský of Arnika, a local NGO that has actively protested the project. “If you can stand at Prague Castle and see skyscrapers on the horizon … it would damage the city’s skyline.”
But ECM officials say they aren’t concerned with the most recent developments in the ongoing dispute, with zoning permits for both high-rises having been issued in June. While UNESCO can provide guidance on historic and cultural preservation for city officials, it has no legal governing authority. In order for ECM to consider altering their existing development plans, it would be necessary for the Culture Ministry and City Hall to intervene.
“I don’t think there will be any serious pressure from any legal authority to change the shape of the building at this point,” said Tomáš Vlček, ECM’s vice president for sales and marketing. “Maybe these UNESCO recommendations can be something that can be applied to future projects and for future investors, but [City Project] is an ongoing project.”
Vlček went on to note that published reports have blown the dispute out of proportion, and that the most recent UNESCO appeal was part of “a very weak, uncultured approach” by local civic organizations, including Občanská iniciativa Pankráce (which he says is currently in the process of appealing the issuance of the buildings’ zoning permits) and Arnika.
Skalský said his organization fears that approval of the skyscrapers’ construction would attract new developers with plans for new high-rises. He noted that the dispute is particularly frustrating because of the difficulty in establishing a series of solid regulations for all new developments due to the city’s varied terrain.
“Clearly, a building that’s constructed on top of a hill is going to have a much different visual impact than one built on the river,” he said. “Every plan for every new building must be assessed.”
Culture Ministry spokesman Jan Cieslar said the ministry expects to receive UNESCO’s official position in writing by the end of the month, and therefore would not comment on it further. Existing reports, he said, were based primarily on Web-based information and an early draft of the UNESCO document. He noted that ministry officials have considered organizing a formal discussion with City Hall once the document is received.
Petr Janyška, primary delegate of the Czech Republic to UNESCO in Paris, said, “The Prague case is similar to many situations in European cities such as Cologne and Vienna. UNESCO is not against new developments, but cities must know how to manage them and their historical centers.
While Skalský said he realizes plans for the City Project skyscrapers might be too far along to halt entirely, his organization would be content with merely decreasing their height.
“If the buildings are less than 60 meters tall, we would consider it a suitable compromise,” he said. “There’s still a lot of room to change the plans.”
But ECM officials say that being forced to reduce the planned buildings’ height could lead to a series of additional complications.
“To lower a building by nearly a third … that’s like knocking the head off of a statue,” Vlček said.
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